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Business provider of wireless voice and data services Airband has raised $20 million with ABRY Partners of Boston as of this morning. The company, which merged with Sparkplug last year to create one of the country’s largest fixed-wireless companies, offers Internet access, VoIP, and other services, and has plans to expand.
Gareb Shamus, CEO of Wizard World, can fly. Oh, he uses a plane like everyone else, but even that pedestrian ability comes in quite handy as he oversees an expanding media and comic-con empire with annual events in 12 major markets, including New York, Miami, Toronto and New England. I caught up with Shamus by phone when he landed in Las Vegas on Wednesday, where he was stopping for a spell to check out the Vegas Licensing Show before heading to a Wizard-produced Comic-Con this weekend in Philadelphia.
Dawnmarie Souza is an emergency medical technician who got into a dispute with her supervisor. That evening, she sat down at her computer and typed an angry post onto her Facebook page. She called him a “17″ — the company’s term for a psychiatric patient — and mocked him in other ways, according to the ambulance company that employed her. Other employees added sympathetic comments, further criticizing the boss. Her actions were a clear violation of the company’s social media policy, which reads: “Employees are prohibited from making disparaging, discriminatory, or defamatory comments when discussing the Company or the employee’s superiors, co-workers and/or competitors.” And so she was fired. This may all seem straightforward enough, but then the plot took an unexpected twist when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against American Medical Response (AMR) the ambulance company that dismissed Souza. The firing was illegal, the NLRB said, and so was the social media policy that led to it. The National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to discuss their working conditions, it decreed, and it didn’t matter whether they did so around a water cooler or over Facebook. An administrative law judge will begin hearing the case in January, and it’s expected to be several months, at least before there’s a final decision. But even if it wins its case, the company will have spent untold amounts of money and time, and endured months of the kind of publicity no company ever wants. And yet, its policy is hardly unusual. Thousands of companies have policies forbidding employees from badmouthing their employers, co-workers, superiors, or competitors on social media. Some have rules against naming their employer at all. Others bar workers from discussing their salaries. Any of these could lead to trouble with the Feds. A newer, tougher standard The filing has left employment lawyers scrambling, in part because NLRB practices appear to have changed. “There was a case based on a similar policy that came up about two years ago and the NLRB general counsel declined to issue a complaint,” says Seth Borden, a partner in the Labor and Employment group at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Now, he says, the Board has a new general counsel. “The Board has signaled a willingness to take a broader view of employees’ rights.” Companies should be concerned about this new direction, he says. “This is the first prominent instance of social media being viewed through the prism of traditional labor law,” he says. “It’s the tip of the iceberg.” Given the new reality, many employers are wondering whether it would be best to scrap social media policies altogether. But legal experts still agree you’re better off with a policy than without one. “I’m encouraging my clients to have and enforce a social network policy in order to prevent disclosure of confidential information, trade secrets, and business plans,” says Jerry Lutkus, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. “And these policies should tie in to their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.” Since you do need to have a social media policy, how can you make sure it won’t get your company in trouble? Here are some issues to consider: Avoid ‘disparagement’ According to several legal experts, without this one word AMR could probably have stayed out of trouble. “If you took the disparagement language out of this policy, it becomes very hard to argue that it’s invalid on its face,” Lutkus says. At the same time, he acknowledges, without that wording it would have been hard for AMR to discipline Souza based on her Facebook post. Have your policy acknowledge the law One of the simplest ways to make sure your policy won’t violate a law is to say so, right in the policy. “Your policy may need protective language that says the application of this policy will be consistent with the National Labor Relations Act,” advises Maria L. Petrillo, a member at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC in Philadelphia. And Borden recommends taking it one step further, and having a blanket disclaimer attached to your entire employment policy that no application of your policy will violate any applicable local, state, or federal law. Don’t cover all the bases Companies sometimes try to play it safe when writing policies, trying to come up with blanket language that can cover any possible contingency. But that very strategy can get you in trouble if the NLRB sees your policy as overly broad. On the other hand, a policy that’s too narrow can leave you unprotected if an employee does something you hadn’t thought of. “It’s tricky for employers to get that balance between too broad and too narrow,” Borden says. “But I think they ought to try.” Understand what’s protected Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to engage in “concerted activities” for bargaining, mutual aid, and protection. That means it’s especially risky to interfere any time employees discuss working conditions among themselves. Keep in mind, though, that employees who make defamatory or discriminatory statements can lose that protection. Don’t invite trouble The AMR case began when Souza was ordered to write a response to a customer’s complaint about her. She asked to have her union representative present but her boss refused to allow it. “Saying no to a union representative raises a red flag,” Petrillo says. Without that, experts agree, the NLRB might not have picked AMR to make an example of. Plan to review your policy at least every two years “Case law is changing very rapidly and social media is changing rapidly as well, so it’s a moving target,” notes Christine Hueber, head of ChristineHueber.com which provides social media services and advice to companies here and abroad. “What was right six months ago may not be right three months from now. Social media policies pose interesting questions, because it is such an intersection of business and private life. And we’re still finding our way.”
When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti in January, Americans were asked to pull out their cell phones rather than their wallets. In the first large-scale use of texting to make charitable donations, givers contributed more than $30 million in just 10 days. The texting campaign was a signal moment in charitable giving, but it also served as an indicator of the move toward mobile payment, says Kolja Reiss, managing director for industry leader mopay Inc.’s U.S. operations. “We’ll look back and say one of the key drivers for mobile payments in 2010 was Haiti, when people realized ‘I can donate through my cell phone,”’ says Reiss. “The way that we pay for things is changing drastically globally. A couple of years back, people would have said, ‘Why do we need this? Let’s just put it on a credit card.’” The boom in mobile payments Across the globe, mobile payments are rapidly gaining ground. Analyst Juniper Research projects revenue transactions will top $300 billion worldwide by 2013. In Japan, where one mobile phone carrier dominates, mobile payment has become commonplace for consumers. While the United States has traditionally lagged behind when it comes to adoption of mobile technology, the gap is narrowing rapidly, say analysts. The rapid, widespread adoption of smartphones means your consumers are growing accustomed to conducting much of their lives through their mobile devices. Soon, they’ll likely expect to be able to pay via their phones as well. According to technology analyst ABI Research, mobile shopping in this country leaped from $396 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2009, with 100 percent growth to $2.4 billion projected for 2010. “Overall, the U.S. doesn’t have to be ashamed of being behind anymore,” says Derek Kerton, principal analyst for The Kerton Group, which specializes in advanced telecom. However, the market is still murky when it comes to just what forms mobile payments will take and just how consumers in middle America will adopt the technologies, Kerton cautions. “Some people are doing this, but a lot of the country is more reluctant than we think,” Kerton says. “I haven’t seen anything to see that it’s being adopted all that widely yet. It usually takes a fair bit of time for a new solution to be picked up and spread out.” Where the technology is headed A myriad of companies are jockeying to provide mobile payment solutions. A sampling of recent developments: Verizon Wireless will launch an e-commerce service that lets customers charge up to $25 a month in online purchases to their Verizon account. Consumers can click a button on participating websites, indicating they want the charge billed to their cell. The consumer is asked to input cell number and billing zip code, then receives a code to use in the checkout process. Mopay, which has been used primarily to purchase virtual goods such as videos and music downloads, recently announced it will support the online purchase of physical goods in 28 counties. Consumers provide their cell phone number and receive a text message confirming the charge. Right now, purchases are limited to small-ticket items, and the service isn’t yet available in the United States. Startup XIPWIRE has launched a mobile to mobile service in Philadelphia that lets consumers and merchants send and receive money through text messages. DeviceFidelity and Visa rely on near field communication (NFC) to enable a new iPhone case that includes a removable MicroSD card capable of storing and transmitting credit card information. Consumers will simply hold their iPhone cases up to Visa’s PayWave scanner to complete transactions. Square is targeting small businesses with its payment system. A small card reader is attached to a phone via the audio jack. A Square application for the Android or iPhone lets the customer approve the transaction on the touchscreen. The company allows for better tracking of analytics for small businesses that usually are more reliant on cash sales. What’s a small business to do? Right now, both transaction fees and sorting out which technologies will triumph in the marketplace can be daunting. For instance, mopay is seeing fees as high as 40 to 50 percent on its small transactions, which average $5 to $10. “Carriers charge a high premium,” Reiss says. “The transaction fees in the mobile industry are definitely the highest. We’ll see a decline in transaction fees.” Square merchants will pay 2.75 percent plus 15 cents for each transaction using a card and 3.5 percent plus 15 cents when consumers offer just the card number. XIPWIRE will offer free service this year, then plans to charge just 10 cents a transaction. This is one time small to mid-size businesses need not fret too much about keeping up, says Kerton. The innovation will come from companies such as Visa, Kerton advises. “You can easily say ‘This is your turn to earn that darn commission,’” Kerton says. “The individual merchant doesn’t need to do that much, although there will be training aspects as new solutions emerge.”
A few months ago, Comcast swooped in with an offer some small businesses couldn’t refuse: e-mail, calendaring, and document sharing, all courtesy of Microsoft. Best of all, it’s all free — up to a point, anyway. For small businesses that sign up for Comcast’s broadband service, which starts at $60 a month, those customers get a suite of services called Microsoft Communication Services that are based on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, and Microsoft SharePoint Services 3.0. Up to eight users, the service is free. Beyond that, the cost is $3.99 or $6.99 per user per month, depending on the services ordered. With the Comcast deal, Microsoft made a pre-emptive strike against Google, whose Web-based Google Apps represents a threat to Microsoft’s software hegemony. The Standard Edition of Google Apps is free, but the company charges $50 per account per year for its Premier Edition. Cable offering up apps Comcast’s goal was obviously to drum up more business from firms with fewer than 20 employees, aka small to mid-sized businesses. As Comcast president Bill Stemper puts it, small and mid-sized businesses “are the heart of the country — law firms, medical offices — these folks that not only have people in all sorts of different locations and in mobile offices, but key partners not in their location.” Stemper adds that people who work in large firms often take for granted that they have an IT department that does the work for them, but small firms often need all the help they can get. In fact, when Comcast made the announcement in November that it planned to offer such Microsoft services, the company positioned itself as the IT department for small businesses. As part of the push, the Philadelphia cable operator hired 750 salespeople and 1,200 technicians to develop business services and pledged to spend $3 billion going after small and mid-sized business customers. Stemper estimates that there are five million small and mid-sized businesses with fewer than 20 employees in the company’s coverage area, which represents a $12 billion to $15 billion market. Telcos getting in on the act Comcast isn’t the only one going after that audience. Competitors on the cable side include Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable as well as telcos like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. Incumbent phone companies stand to lose as many as 1.5 million small-business phone lines, according to Insight Research Corp., of Boonton, N.J. Nevertheless, so far no one has tried to match Comcast’s offer. “Comcast is the only one, the only major ISP to be doing this,” says Patti Reali, principal analyst at Gartner Group, of Stamford, Conn. Even so, in a December report, Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., says that while Comcast will have to work hard to change the perception that it’s merely a provider of pipes rather than business services, she also recommended that Comcast should go further by adding mobile services to the package and CRM and payroll software packages. Stemper says that for now the company is focusing on e-mail and collaboration tools, which have supplanted security as the “must-have” applications for small and mid-sized businesses. Says Stemper: “We’re always looking to see which new services make sense.”